New Jersey Scuba Diving
Wrasses - Blackfish & Cunner
These fish are Wrasses, northern representatives of a widespread tropical family that includes Parrotfishes. Wrasses propel themselves slowly and precisely with their pectoral fins, using the tail only in emergencies. Tropical Wrasses feed on coral. Lacking this, their northern cousins feed primarily on mussels and other shellfish.
Cunners and Tautogs
People pay big money to see fish like this in the tropics. We have them right here !
Tautog ( Blackfish )
Profile by Peter J. Himchak
Tautog are distributed along the northeast Atlantic coast of North America from the outer coast of Nova Scotia to Georgia. Greatest abundances are found from Cape Cod to Chesapeake Bay. North of Cape Cod they are usually found close to shore ( within 4 miles ) in water less than 60 feet deep. South of Cape Cod, they can be found up to 40 miles offshore and at depths up to 120 feet.
The Tautog is a slow growing, long-lived species with individuals over 30 years of age having been reported. Larval growth rates have been estimated to be between 0.01 and 0.03 inches per day. Young of the year juveniles grow during the summer at a rate of around 0.02 inches per day. Juvenile growth rates have been observed to be higher in vegetated than in unvegetated habitats. Average length after the first summer of growth is 2.9 inches; 6.1 inches after the second summer of growth. Adult growth is relatively slow and varies with the season. Adult male tautog grow faster in length than adult females. A reasonably accurate guide to tautog length at age is provided in the table to the right.
Food & Feeding:
Juvenile tautog feed primarily on small bottom and water column invertebrates. Diet changes as juveniles mature and increase in size. Adults feed primarily on the blue mussel and other shellfish. Adults grasp mussels using their large canine teeth, tearing them from the surrounding surface by shaking their heads. Small mussels are swallowed whole, while large, hard shelled ones are crushed by the pharyngeal teeth prior to swallowing. Adult tautog also consume barnacles, crabs, hermit crabs, sand dollars, scallops, and other invertebrates.
Tautog are not highly migratory along the Atlantic coast but rather demonstrate an inshore offshore migration pattern throughout the year. Adult tautog migrate inshore in the spring as water warms to around 48°F to spawn in late spring through early summer. The fall offshore migration is triggered when water temperatures drop below 52°F in the late fall. Most adult tautog form schools and migrate offshore to deep water locations ( 80-150 feet ) with rugged bottom, becoming inactive throughout the winter.
Tautog are structure dependent fishes throughout their lives. Juvenile tautog occur in bays, in submerged aquatic vegetation beds and around pilings or other hard structures. Adults inhabit rough bottom, which includes rock outcroppings, shipwrecks and artificial reefs, in near-shore ocean waters. North of Long Island, NY, rocks and boulders can be found in abundance along the coastline as a result of glacial deposition, providing habitat for larger tautog. South of Long Island, there are a few natural rocky habitats in coastal waters, so tautog commonly inhabit shellfish beds, coastal jetties, pilings, shipwrecks and artificial reefs. The major rock outcroppings along the New Jersey coast occur off the mouth of Delaware Bay and the area north of Manasquan Inlet. Artificial reef locations occur along the entire New Jersey coastline. Artificial reef creation may be expanding tautog habitat into open, sandy coastal areas where tautog would not normally be found.
... only a mother could love.
Tautog normally reach sexual maturity at 3 to 4 years of age ( 7-12 inches ). Spawning usually occurs within estuaries or in near-shore marine waters. Tagging studies have shown that adults returned to the same spawning locations over a period of several years. Discrete spawning groups may exist in Narragansett Bay, Long Island Sound and Chesapeake Bay as evidence by tagging studies and fishing observations. Optimum size for female egg production has been estimated at 16 inches. Tautog between 8 and 27 inches in total length were observed to contain 5,000 to 637,500 mature eggs. Eggs are buoyant without oil globules, 0.9-1.0 mm in diameter. Spawning occurs in heterosexual pairs or in groups of a single female with several males.
Recreational and Commercial Importance:
The primary fishing grounds extend from the beach out to about the 12 fathom contour. Recreational fishing modes include bottom fishing, particularly the directed trips of party and charter boats, jetty fishing and spearfishing. The tautog is fished recreationally during April-June and September-December. The ideal boat rod for tautog is 7 feet in length with a sturdy butt section and slow tapered tip. Live green crabs or fiddlers are the best bait to use. Conventional reels are preferable over spinning tackle for bottom fishing and a fishing rod with muscle will help keep those hooked tautog from getting back into the reef structure where the line may get hung up or cut on the sharp edges of mussels or barnacles. The mean weight of tautog harvested in the New Jersey recreational fishery ranges from 1.8 to 2.3 pounds. The New Jersey State record tautog weighed 21 pounds 8 ounces. New Jersey recreational landings have fluctuated over time ranging from 0.2 million pounds in 1981 to the peak value of 2.5 million pounds in 1992.
Commercial fishery landings for tautog in New Jersey averaged 108,000 pounds over the period 1981 through 1994, coming from a variety of gear. Presently, fish pot trawls account for most of the commercial landings. Historically, commercial landings have accounted for approximately 10% of the New Jersey total annual tautog harvest.
Acknowledgements & References:
Illustration and feeding, Bigelow and Schroeder (1953); range, Parker, et al. (1994); larval growth, Dort (1994); young of year growth, Sogard, et al. (1992); adult growth, Cooper (1967), Simpson (1989), Hostetter and Monroe (1993); feeding, Olla, et al. (1974); spawning, Sogard, et al. (1992); tagging, Cooper (1966), Lynch (1991); fecundity, Chenoweth (1963); fishing tackle and illustration, Freel (1989), Public Information Document and Tautog Fishery Management Plan, ASMFC (1995, 1996).
This article first appeared in New Jersey Reef News - 1998 edition
Older individuals like this one acquire an overall gray coloration, with white patches on the sides. They also develop grotesque thick fat lips, and a mean snaggly set of teeth, although they will not try to use them on you.
Blackfish are usually taken by spear, but the really big ones tend to be extremely wary and difficult to approach - they didn't get big by being stupid! Hunting them is worth the effort, the flesh is firm and white, is excellent fried, baked, or in chowder.
The hide of a Blackfish is thick and tough, almost like leather. When cleaning your catch, I have found that it is easier to fillet the fish first, then pull the skin from the fillets, scales and all, using pliers! Trying to scale one of these beasts with a knife just results in a dull knife, and the skin imparts a fishy taste that ruins the meat if not quickly removed.
I must question the logic of the fishing regulations for this species, at least with regards to offshore fishing in deep water. A hook-and-line fisherman might haul up dozens of "shorts" from the bottom to the surface, looking for that one keeper ( in fact, the current laws encourage them to do this ). Although these little fish must be released, the damage is already done - their swim bladders expand just as our lungs would in an uncontrolled ascent, with even worse effects. Often the internal organs are forced out through the anus. The fish also suffer a temperature shock from being pulled through the thermocline, not to mention whatever harm the hook itself has done to them. Although they may swim away into the depths when set free, I sincerely doubt very many of these poor fish survive. This does not seem like a very good conservation plan to me. At least a spear-fishing diver can verify the size and status of his quarry before taking it.
When it gets cold, Blackfish move to their offshore wintering grounds and become inactive. Baby Blackfish look just like adults, except they may be emerald green, the better to hide amongst the weeds. They are shy and retiring.
Tautog was the Native American name for the fish.
See Restrictions and Health Advisories for catch limits.
See Dive Gear for Spearfishing.
Tautog Fishing Has Been Great, So Why More Restrictions?
By Peter Himchak, Supervising Biologist
New Jersey anglers were pro-active in tautog management long before the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission ( ASMFC ) Interstate Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for Tautog was adopted in March 1996. The New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council (MFC) formed a Tautog Committee in the mid-1980's bringing together recreational and commercial fishermen, divers, council members, and Division of Fish and Wildlife staff to develop a New Jersey management plan for tautog which would promote a sustainable fishery and maintain the historical harvest allocation between recreational and commercial fishermen. The Tautog Committee showed keen vision in designing a step-wise increase in the minimum size limit and establishing an annual commercial harvest quota of 103,000 pounds ( 10% of New Jersey's annual harvest at that time, ) a strategy acceptable to all user groups. The anglers, in fact, requested an accelerated increase in the proposed minimum size when the proposal went out to a public hearing. At the time, all user groups were happy, enthusiastic, and working together, a resource manager's dream.
The ASMFC Tautog Technical Committee started meeting in the mid-l990s, charged with the task of developing an interstate fishery management plan. Upon adoption in 1996, the FMP required states from Massachusetts to North Carolina ( the range of the fish ) to establish a minimum possession size of 14 inches to increase spawning stock biomass and implement effort controls to meet fishing mortality rates established to rebuild the stock and prevent overfishing. New Jersey's Tautog Committee strategy was now supplanted by the requirements of the ASMFC FMP. Recreational and commercial fishermen and divers again made sacrifices, now being constrained by bag limits and seasons. The 14inch minimum possession limit implemented in April 1998 initially restricted the harvest severely in all fisheries, particularly shore based anglers, and the one fish bag limit during warm weather months hurt divers and sportfishermen alike. The closed seasons in the commercial fishery substantially reduced its harvest, as well. The years 1996 through 1999 represented a real drought in harvesting tautog anywhere in the state.
These sacrifices were good investments and the tautog spawning stock biomass rebounded tremendously. The coast-wide fishing mortality rate calculated in 1999 ( F=0.22 ) showed that fishing mortality was highly reduced from previous years and in line with the FMP fishing mortality target ( Interim F=0.24 ) the 14-inch minimum possession limit was effective in protecting several year classes from harvest and hopefully, the effort controls ( bag limits and seasons ) would control fishing mortality when these year classes crossed the 14-inch threshold. The 2000 fishing season for recreational anglers was great and they, at least, were happy. Commercial fishermen, unfortunately, were still required to release many legal size fish during closed commercial seasons.
Delight turned to dismay when the coastal stock assessment was updated following the 2000 season and fishing mortality was shown to have increased substantially to F=0.41, reversing the gains made throughout the previous years. Production of young fish from the 1999 and 2000 year classes was excellent but the high fishing mortality on older fish had eroded the spawning stock biomass. Apparently, the effort had not been sufficiently controlled to continue the reduction in the fishing mortality rate. Since the FMP target is F=0.29 and the current fishing mortality rate was measured as F=0.41, a 49% reduction in fishing mortality would now be required to meet the FMP goal. Such a reduction would be socially and economically devastating. Now what do we do?
Complicating an already confusing management situation has been the growth of a substantial illegal commercial fishery. The live fish market and the increased availability of tautog have provided an economic incentive for some non-permitted anglers to sell their catch. Several years ago, a quota based, limited entry commercial fishery was established for the historical participants in the commercial tautog fishery. Both directed fishery and non-directed fishery tautog permits were issued to qualifying commercial fishermen who generated the commercial landings used as the basis of the quota. At the present time, only 57 individuals in the state have been issued a tautog permit and are allowed to take tautog for purposes of sale. Any non-permitted fisherman taking tautog by any means for purposes of sale is participating in an illegal commercial fishery. Marine enforcement agents have issued many summonses for this illegal activity which has become widespread along the New Jersey coast. This illegal harvest not only harms the resource but may be inflating the enormous harvest estimate for the recreational fishery.
The fishing community is at a crossroads again on tautog management. Addendum Ill of the FMP has been through the public hearing process. The public comment period that lasted until February 15, 2002 afforded all interested parties to voice their preference on a number of options setting the future course of interstate management of tautog. The ASMFC Tautog Management Board (Board) met February 18, 2002 and reviewed the scientific recommendations and all the public comments on Addendum III before deciding the best course of action to take in 2002 and in future years.
The Board approved Addendum III with the following management requirements:
- States must maintain current or more restrictive fishing regulations during 2002.
- By April 1, 2003, states must implement regulations to reduce fishing mortality in the recreational fishery by approximately 48%. Such reductions will be achieved in lower bag limits, shorter seasons, or a combination of both.
- The ASMFC Law Enforcement Committee will investigate and assess the magnitude of unreported landings, both for the live market and from non-directed gear ( i.e., bycatch ) and report back to the board during 2002.
While the Board maintained its support for the coast-wide tautog stock assessment through a Virtual Population Analysis approach, it placed additional requirements on states to enhance data collection and monitoring programs coast-wide. Improved data collection programs would provide for regional stock assessments and allow states more flexibility in designing management measures.
The Board further recommended that the Federal government adopt management measures in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), 3-200 nautical miles offshore, which are in accordance with states' minimum sizes, bag limits, seasons, and other landings requirements. At the present time, there are no federal management measures for tautog in the EEZ.
After extensive dialogue among all user groups, scientists, and managers, a future course of action has been set for the management of tautog. More data must be collected and more sacrificing must be endured to restore this valuable resource. Let's hope for the best for both the fish and the fisherman.
Reprinted from NJ Fish & Wildlife Digest 2002 Marine Issue
Cunner ( Bergall )
Cunner - A Profile
by Stacey Reap
A regular reef-system resident, the cunner (tautogolabrus adspersus) does not enjoy quite as glamorous a reputation as its close relative the highly prized tautog, but the two fish share many similarities.
Also commonly known as bergall, cunner share the tautog's single long dorsal fin, the anterior majority of which harbors a series of spines that give way to softer rays that are rounded toward the posterior of the fish. The cunner's rounded tail fin originates from a deep caudal peduncle, and its ventral fins are located almost directly beneath the pectorals. It has a slimmer body, more pointed snout and much thinner lips than the distinctively headed tautog.
Cunner exhibit a spectrum of coloration, attributable to the different habitat backdrops in which it is found. They can range from rusty red to brown to greenish gray and more, and young fish, up to 10 cm, have a black spot on the soft part of the dorsal fin.
Members of the species generally only reach approximately 10 in (25 cm) in length and weigh less than half a pound, although New Jersey boasts a new state record fish caught March 7, 2006, by Nick Honachefsky of Mantoloking. The fish was 16 in. long and weighed 2 lbs., 9 oz., beating the previous state record by nearly a pound, and has been certified by the International Game Fish Association as a world record.
Ranging along the Atlantic coast and offshore banks of North America, cunner are regular residents from Newfoundland to New Jersey and are occasionally found as far south as the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
Although not a schooling fish, cunner generally live together, probably due to their common dependence on cover in their habitat. Active during the day, they become quiescent at night and require shelter, such as reefs, rock outcroppings or eelgrass beds, for protection. The number of suitable shelter sites within a habitat is thought to be a limiting factor for population size within a given area.
While most of the population occupies perennial habitats year-round, some cunner disperse to seasonal habitats composed of eelgrass, stands of kelp or mussel beds when they become available. Starting with the larger fish, cunner become torpid or inactive when water temperatures fall to about 8 degrees C and remain in their shelter sites until water temperatures increase in the spring.
Some fish may leave the perennial habitats in the spring due to aggressive competition during spawning season. The fish spawn mainly from late spring through early summer, and upon hatching the larvae are approximately 2 to 2.2 mm long. At 15 mm, young cunner have already assumed nearly adult form. Most cunner mature in their third summer, when they are two full years old and 3 in. long.
Sharing a buck-toothed appearance with the tautog, in addition to its conical jaw teeth, cunner have patches of knobby teeth on the roof of the mouth and floor of the throat that aid in grinding food. The omnivorous fish forages throughout the day on food items frequently occurring on New Jersey's reefs in large abundance such as blue mussels, barnacles, amphipods, shrimp and small lobsters. Their scan-and-pick feeding methods result in the consumption of a variety of other small creatures, including small fish like silversides and pipefish. Eel grass is commonly found in their stomachs, as well.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cunner was a favorite panfish with some areas reporting landings in the hundreds of thousands of pounds. Though now not typically thought of for its commercial or recreational value, cunner continue to entertain and confound fisherman and divers with their somewhat brash behavior and bait-stealing antics.
When targeting this tiny-mouthed, lightning-quick bait stripper, a tough-textured bait such as strips of squid or conch can be used on small hooks with minimal weight, though they'll go for most anything. Keep a feel of your line to detect the light taps when they go for the bait; because they're small fish, only a moderate tug should be used to set the hook.
Though often not regarded as a good eating fish, probably due to their size, cunner are reportedly tasty. They can be pan or oven fried or baked whole, with bones and fins pulling away easily from the flesh, or filleted, if you are patient.
This article first appeared in New Jersey Reef News - 2007 edition
This is single most common fish seen by divers in our area, and possibly the most amusing as well. In many places, hordes of small cunners seem to drive away all the more desirable fishes. They are bold and aggressive, to the point of even nipping at exposed fingers! they are also inquisitive and easily approached.
Cunners attacking a mussel that I smashed. I have an old article from one of the glossy dive magazines that calls these fish "shy". Hardly - a lot they know !
Some cunners seem to enjoy having their picture taken, like the one at right. Perhaps the reflection from the lens looked like something edible. Note the choppers.
You can cause a feeding frenzy among cunners by smashing a few mussels with the back end of your knife. You can even trap them in your goody bag this way, which is fun, but there's no point in keeping them, so just let them go when you are done proving the superiority of hairless apes over fish.
I have amused myself on many an otherwise crummy low-viz dive just by playing games with these bold and obliging little fishes. They don't ever seem to get tired of you, especially if food is involved. When hunting for more desirable prey, I just swat the cunners out of the way with the side of the spear, and sometimes it is amazing how many times you have to bop one of these guys before he gets the message !
A baby cunner, cute but nippy. They also come in shades of pink.
Nothing but cunners. I wish they were good to eat, but they're not.
Looking down off the port bridge wing of the Algol at the deck below.
The leading cunner swam up and bit me a right after I took this picture.
They really are little bastards.
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